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Building bridges

Building bridges

By Alexander Chapman


The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) is about as far from a courtroom setting as you can get. Occupying a huge, circular chamber with a distinctive sculpted ceiling, the 190-plus states of the international community and their huge range of languages, voices and viewpoints intermingle with those of civil society and other experts from across the globe. The peak UN human rights body, in Geneva, is the centre of global discussions on human rights. It meets three times each year and can hold special extra sessions on an ad hoc basis, for instance when a human rights crisis in a particular part of the world demands specific attention. Member states are elected to three year terms from among the different regional groups of the UN. During each session, member-states and observers negotiate resolutions to be voted on at the end of each session, expressing the view of the international community on a wide range of human rights issues. Discussions range from issues like the protection of civilians in Syria to the importance of education for girls, to the eradication of slavery in multiple industries worldwide. Only member states can vote on a resolution, but during each HRC session member-states, observers, NGOs, academics and human rights experts all engage in ongoing dialogue, drawing attention to issues of concern and offering insight into the status and development of international human rights laws and norms. One of the key parts of the HRC’s work is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This is a unique process, led by UN member states, in which the human rights record of every UN member is reviewed one by one, including the opportunity for input from every other UN member state. Australia’s last UPR took place in 2015. After extensive consultations between the Australian government and civil society NGOs in Australia, Geneva and New York, Australia took on a number of recommendations and made several commitments on improving its approach to human rights.

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